Tuesday, August 28, 2001

Ex-teacher helps sting con artist

        Jacques Descent, a particularly slimy crook who specialized in fleecing the elderly, stood before a judge in Florida this month to receive news that he would be making his home in prison for the next 10 years. Mary Wagner, a former nun and retired Cincinnati teacher and principal, helped put him there.

        It began with a telephone call in May 1999 from a man who identified himself as an attorney. “This must be important,” the Clifton woman thought. So she hit the record button on her answering machine. And she started taking notes.

        “I always keep a spiral notebook by the telephone,” she says. She's a thorough, smart and practical woman.

The caller told her the Canadian government, working with U.S. authorities, had confiscated the assets of 252 illegal lotteries. “The judge has declared the remaining monies should go to the people who participated in these lotteries,” he said.

An easy mark

        Mary remembered buying a $10 chance on a car. “Once they get your name, they sell it to other companies,” Mary says. “They think you are psychologically into gaming.” An easy mark, in other words.

        Boy, did they have the wrong number.

        “Your share,” Mary was informed, “is $275,750.” He outlined an elaborate list of claim procedures, including a “prepayment of taxes.”

        Conventional wisdom is that a person really can't be scammed without an element of greed on the part of the victim. Think of elderly people you know. Are they hoping to win the lottery so they can build a swimming pool? Buy a yacht?

        Of course not.

        One victim sent Jacques Descent his life savings of more than $118,000 hoping to use the promised winnings to get nursing care for his ailing wife, an Alzheimer's victim. One woman planned to pay for new teeth. Mary had fleeting dreams of a new organ for her church.

        “You think maybe you really did get lucky — maybe it's your turn.” Because it sounded very plausible. A retired general was bilked. A concert pianist lost $429,000. “The man sounded professional,” Mary says. “I knew right away that I was going to have to talk to another professional.”

        She told the caller she needed time to think it over, that she wanted to see a copy of the judgment against the lotteries and a written copy of the procedures. The next day, she heard from another “attorney.” They were figuring they had baited the hook. Now they'd set it and reel her in.

        But this woman knows something about fishing herself, has hauled in her share of northern pike and is familiar with worms.

        The “professionals” she contacted included the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the FBI and the U.S. Postal Service. Mary sent checks off to a post office box in Canada, a sting that resulted in the arrest of the phone scam kingpin. She testified at his trial in January, when she met some of his victims.

        “Just heartbreaking,” she says. Mary didn't lose any money, but the other 13 who testified — some using walkers to make their way to the stand — were cheated of at least $1.5 million.

        “Parole no longer exists in the federal system,” explains a letter of thanks from a postal inspector to Mary, “so he will actually serve this sentence.”

        Authorities offered to fly Mary back to Florida Aug. 7 for the sentencing.

        She went fishing instead.

        E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/pulfer.


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